Back in the early 21st century, I read Patrick Süskind’s Perfume on a screen and was silly enough to talk about it. Sensitive friends fled in disgust to curl up with good paper books. Bet some of them stuck their noses in them and inhaled, too. The anxiety about ink on paper losing ground to pixels on screens had just kicked in, and sensitive nostalgics celebrated the olfactory appeal of freshly printed books as one of those touchy-feely things that electronics can’t replicate.
They didn’t seem to realise that it came from volatile chemicals in printer’s ink. Physiologically, it’s no different from sniffing glue. Or a warm motherboard, for that matter.
Having been declared a philistine for reading on a screen, I did not disclose the whole awful truth: it wasn’t a computer but a Nokia phone. Not a smartphone, either, for those were still years away, but a good, solid dumbphone with a tiny black-and-white screen.
It could display about 15 words of Perfume at a time, the same as one tiny centimetre of one column of one page of this newspaper, but that didn’t seem to be an impediment. It was just a different way of reading. Perfume smelled delightfully different. The phone’s scroll button wore out pretty soon, though.
A decade later, in 2014, E ink has become almost as commonplace as Chelpark used to be. Maybe it was market dynamics, as the Kindle slid into a price band which includes oil heaters, terabyte hard disks and microwave ovens. Maybe not, though, since talented e-readers and file converters have made e-texts platform-independent.
Any tablet, smartphone or computer is now an e-reader, the same as a Kindle. So what was the agent of change? Maybe people were reading more e-books in 2014 simply because they were there, like Mount Everest. The electronic store shelves in phones and small devices bristle with books, along with apps, games and movies. India’s English language publishers turned to e-books for growth this year and even a news aggregator ventured into the segment.
But Mount Everest has always been there. The e-book is as old as the internet, though its promise was realised a decade ago. Google launched its book search service in 2004, indexing texts which it had been digitising since 2002, when it gained access to public libraries. A wave of fear and loathing swept traditional publishers as they struggled to get their heads around the idea of infinitely cloneable books. The matter was settled only in November 2013, when a Manhattan court ruled in favour of Google.
Long before that, in 1972, Michael S. Hart lit a spark by typing out the text of the US Declaration of Independence and making it available for download on the University of Illinois computer network.
That was the beginning of Project Gutenberg, which would become a huge repository of e-texts three decades later, when the internet brought together volunteer book lovers, optical character recognition and out-of-copyright books in industrial quantities. Initially committed to distributing 1 million e-texts by the turn of the 20th century, it is probably the world’s biggest public library.
For all its pretensions to modernity, the e-text is actually older than the internet as we understand it. It dates back to the beginnings of hacker culture, when the term referred to experimental programmers rather than digital criminals. The earliest e-texts lived on Usenet, a system for discussion and file sharing which predated the Web, and which is still thriving. Hacker texts like the Jargon File ran on it — a dictionary of techie slang that dated back to wartime MIT, where enduring cult terms like ‘foo’ (as in Foo Fighters) were born.
Outrageous conspiracies were outlined in documents like the Opal File, which described the takeover of Oceania by an international cartel involving gangs, governments, oil, gas, media and drugs. It’s slightly slow reading after Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and colourful gossip about Indian mining activity in Australia, but it was unputdownable in the Nineties.
The bestseller was The Terrorist’s Handbook, which surfaced anonymously on Usenet in the Eighties and seems to have vanished just as quietly, now that terrorism is an indefensible evil. Even back then, it used arm’s-length third-personalisation for legal protection.
The recipe for fulminate of mercury, the world’s favourite detonator chemical before RDX started making shockwaves, began like this: “A person making this material would probably use the following procedure…” An even more powerful disclaimer: “An idiot who attempts to make nitroglycerine would use the following procedure…”
Really, that sort of thing is history. Now, young people go online to pirate Chetan Bhagat, a relatively harmless pastime. Possibly mythical, too. Through Christmas Eve, I listened in on an internet chat channel where pirated e-books are traded, to learn what moves fast. Not a single book by an Indian author, not even Bhagat, was checked out.
Serial fantasy and crime and lurid sexual fantasy dressed up as romance were top, er, sellers. The e-text of Neuromancer was popular too, the book that described the very world in which the pirate channel lives. Ironically, William Gibson wrote it on a Hermes portable typewriter from between the wars. What is that, circular illogic? Whatever, it makes the wearisome debate about e-books and physical books wholly redundant.